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An Old Young Israel

By David Wilder
1/8/2012, 1:01 PM
 

 

Yesterday my wife and I spent Shabbat in Jerusalem with some friends. They made Aliyah a year and a half ago and invited us to spend the day with them in the “Holy City.”
 
After arriving at their apartment in the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood of Jerusalem, I asked what time they leave the house to pray on Saturday morning.  I was a little taken aback when the response was ‘6:30.’ But not for long.  We don’t often go out for Shabbat, but when we do, I try not to let anything faze me.  “Ok, 6:30, fine. But where are we going?” “To the Old City, to the Moslem Quarter. It’s about a 35 minute walk from here.”

So, 6:30 it was. We left on time, Ken and I, with two of his children.  The Jerusalem winter air was crisp, cold and clear. Just as I remember it, from when I first lived in Israel, in Jerusalem, some 37 years ago.  You might expect that at that hour of the morning, on a Saturday, the streets would be empty. But they weren’t. Not that they were full either. But there were others, like ourselves, making their way by foot to a synagogue somewhere in the city. 

We walked outside just as the sun rose, lighting up the sky with a seeming sanctity that might only be sensed in the holiest city in the world.  Our half-hour walk was a stroll though a time tunnel. Leaving the home I searched carefully for another apartment building in the neighborhood. Our host’s apartment is on Rav Haim Berlin Street. I lived on that same street thirty seven years ago, while attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

Only two buildings from theirs – and there it was. I haven’t been there in quite some time, but easily recognized the three porches jutting out towards the street. Ours was on the top floor. We were five guys, in Israel for a year, mostly juniors in university. Walking past brought back a flood of memories, from way back when, then a kid, 20 years old.

But I didn’t have too much time to reminisce. We walked briskly down the street, onto Aza Road, and then down Agron. Crossing the main street we entered an area I’d never visited, that being the Mamilla promenade.  It is really a combination of the old and the new. Externally it has a kind of quaint atmosphere, but the storefronts are far from old-fashioned, selling anything and everything you can imagine, at  prices I’m sure aren’t from the middle ages.  But it is picturesque, an interesting addition of Jerusalem’s diverse cultures.

The walkway led to narrow stone stairs, directly in front of Jaffa Gate, leading into the Old City. As was crossed from the twenty-first century into a time warp going back about 2,000 years, I recalled the first time I’d crossed that threshold, back then. The day after we arrived, it was probably late Friday morning, I stood outside that huge stone wall, waiting for all the group to arrive, so that we could all go in together. I remembered the excitement, the anticipation, knowing that in a few moments we’d be marching to the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

It’s a little different today. The ‘gate’ is no longer there, just a big opening, like a hole in the wall. But walking through an almost empty Arab market, down the smooth stone stairs, under arches people are used to seeing only in pictures, it was quite a feeling. Like, here I am, back home again.

We didn’t make a right turn, as did other Jews like ourselves,  towards the Kotel, to pray at the Wall. Rather we turned left, into the so-called Moslem Quarter. We walked past a memorial to  Elchanan Atali, a young yeshiva student murdered there some 21 years ago. And then, on the left side of the road, a door with a sign hanging on the wall, “Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue – Young Israel of the Old City of Jerusalem.”

Many may not be familiar with the name ‘Young Israel.’ ‘Young Israel’ is an association of Orthodox synagogues, located primarily in the United States. There are too, some here in Israel. This ‘Young Israel’ is located about 5 minutes from the Kotel, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Walking in, up the stairs in what must be a fairly old building, I came to the sanctuary, a small ‘haimish’ (homey)  room, with a few people already in attendance. It was then about 7:10. Standing in the middle of the room, by the pulpit, was an older, scholarly, but kindly looking man, studying the weekly Torah portion. I introduced myself, telling him that we have a mutual friend living in Chicago. He asked if I was from there too; I told him that I’m from Hebron. He told me that he has a son there. I responded that his son was my youngest son’s teacher in the Yeshiva High School in Kiryat Arba.

Then I sat down and listened to his weekly Torah class.

Rabbi Nachman Kahana really is a great Torah sage. He has authored well-know books, is an accomplished speaker and a leader of the Jewish 
presence in the Old City, and here, in the ‘Moslem Quarter,’ where the Jewish presence has grown in  leaps and bounds over the past years, thanks to people like Rabbi Kahana. And if the name rings a bell, yes, he is the brother of the murdered Rabbi Meir Kahana, who too was a Torah scholar.

One theme repeated itself in Rabbi Kahana’s talks on Shabbat, that being the need for Jews to live in Israel. Most of the people attending the Rabbi’s synagogue are ‘former Americans’ who came to live in Israel from the United States, some many years ago, and others, more recently. There were some young men also in attendance, who perhaps hadn’t yet made that fateful decision to stay in Israel, rather than return to live in the US. I’m sure his words, which he spoke in English and Hebrew, to make sure everyone understood, didn’t fall on deaf ears.

Of course, the prayer service was spiritually awakening, and the ‘kiddush’ afterwards, included some of the best of Jerusalm’s ‘kugel,’ (noodle pudding) prepared by the Rabbi’s wife. Leaving the shul, some five hours after arriving, I felt like again, I was walking through time, and what a time it was.

My friend Jack, from Chicago, whenever he’s in Israel, usually turns down my invitations for Shabbat, saying that he prefers to be with Rabbi Nachman Kahana in the Old City. Now I know why. It’s an unbelievable experience, and highly recommended in anyone in the area. And if you’re not planning in the area, I suggest you change your plans and try it out. You won’t be sorry. 

Actually, the Young Israel of the Old City isn’t really so young; rather it’s a segment of the chain of Jewish history, culture and Torah, adjacent to the holiest place in the world, Temple Mount. Rabbi Kahana and his congregation are helping to ensure that this site will remain Jewish forever.